Scientists as role models

Researchers published a study examining the impact of struggle stories of successful scientists on students’ motivation to learn. According to the study, the presumption that the success in science depends on exceptional talent is negatively influencing the desire of students to take science courses in school and further pursue a science degree. These perceptions may undermine the efforts that must be applied by the students when it is most needed. For example, students interpret their struggles in a specific science subject as indication that they are not good and will never succeed in it. The National Academy of Science (2005) underlined that the belief in the necessity of exceptional scientific talent for science learning disrupt efforts to increase the number of students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematical careers.

The core definition of motivation describes why a person selects one action over another with great energization or frequency. In addition, the research suggests that motivation is essential for successful learning and performance but the most important factor is how a person perceives failures and success. The research aims at confronting students’ perceptions that scientific achievements reflect ability rather than effort by exposing students to stories of how accomplished scientists (Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Michael Faraday) struggled and overcame all the obstacles in their scientific endeavors. The stories used in the study were designed to show that even great scientist were just ordinary people “who often fail and struggle with difficulties prior to their triumph”. The research included a number of 402 students from 9th and 10th grades, where they had to read 1 of 3 types of stories about eminent scientists, describing how the scientists (a) struggled intellectually (e.g., made mistakes in investigating scientific problems, and overcame the mistakes through effort), (b) struggled in their personal life (e.g., suffered family poverty and lack of parental support, eventually overcoming it), or (c) made great discoveries (a control condition, similar to the instructional material that appears in many science textbooks, not describing any struggles). The study suggests several interesting hypotheses:

1. Exposing students to struggle stories of scientists improved their science-class performance (in terms of class grades), whereas exposing students to achievement stories did not. Not only did class performance not improve, reading achievement stories might actually be harmful, as reflected in our results;

2. The intervention was most beneficial for students with a low performance. For low-performing students, the exposure to stories of struggle led to significantly better science-class performance than low-performing students who read achievement stories. The authors suggest that future research should identify other individual differences among students who might also benefit from this intervention;

3. A significantly larger number of students who read about the struggles of scientists, either intellectual or of a personal value, felt connected with the stories and the scientists than those students who read about their achievements. Interviews with the students revealed that emphasizing the innate intelligence of the scientists discouraged students from feeling connected with the stories or their characters. Stories which revealed failures and the vulnerability of scientists through their struggles enhanced connection between the students and the scientists;

Although the results from the research have focused on specific aspects of attribution theory on motivation which has not been studied in a school environment by challenging the beliefs of students, that science learning requires exceptional talents and abilities. The study offers new approaches to boost motivation and learning among students. Researchers suggest that these methods using struggle stories of scientists on the path to success can be implemented in the classrooms to improve motivation, science learning and possibly other subjects as well.


Lin-Siegler, X. & Ahn, N.J. 2016. Even Einstein Struggled: Effects of Learning About Great Scientists’ Struggles on High School Students’ Motivation to Learn Science. Journal of Educational Psychology 108(3), 314 –328.